March 27, 2023
Personalizing Sustainability: A Reflection on the Journey to Environmental Accountability
Over the past few years, the youth of today have joined environmental movements to act for a greener future for the generations of tomorrow. Although the push toward sustainability and green initiatives spans the globe, I will highlight the reach it has made in the Middle East. In 2022, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) took place in Egypt and COP 28 is scheduled to take place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in late 2023. This global conference is not the only indicator of green awareness in the region. In fact, in the UAE, the year 2023 is labeled as the “Year of Sustainability,” with numerous environmental practices taking place at the governmental and community levels:
- Net Zero by 2050 Strategic Initiative
- Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week
- 2023 Ras Al Khaimah Art Festival’s focus on nature
The public policy and community landscapes are becoming noticeably greener in the UAE. Sustainability education is also being increasingly embedded into school curricula, and in 2023, the UAE’s Ministry of Education launched its Green Education Partnership Roadmap. A key component of the Partnership involves establishing an Education Pavilion as part of COP 28, the first of its kind in the history of the conference.
With education and environment constantly in the headlines, “sustainability” has transformed into a buzzword more heavily associated with policy and less associated with the personal. While taking steps toward greening the policy landscape is important, these top-down initiatives are not enough to transform personal perceptions and practices. Instead, what we must do, is find alternative ways to encourage youth and community members to reflect on their relationships with nature and sustainability at the familial, social, and educational levels. From my experience, my teachers played a big role in educating me about the environment, and opportunities to learn about global issues at school cannot be underestimated.
My Journey to Making the Environment Something Personal
My personal interest in the environment was piqued by a passionate teacher during my time in middle school in Sharjah. Dr. Richard Alan Northover, head of the English department, hosted school assemblies on global warming and the negative impact littering has on biodiversity and wildlife. He guided my peers and I to critically think about where garbage goes by encouraging us to critique “throwaway culture” and to become more mindful of our surroundings. Additionally, he founded a campus environmental club which not only evolved into a schoolwide recycling program, but also served as the impetus of my transformation into a teenage environmentalist. Interestingly, as I reflect on this experience, I realize that it was 12 years ago when I made the commitment to protect the environment.
Although the term sustainability is often described as a big task that requires surmountable global shifts, it might be hard to believe, but it doesn’t. The lifestyle shifts that I’ve personally taken on to sustain the environment are small but mighty. For instance, after selecting my groceries at the supermarket, rather than using plastic bags, I use recyclable cloth bags instead. At every presented opportunity, I refuse plastic straws, I choose products wrapped in more eco-friendly packaging, and I recycle paper and plastic.
Recycling on a more personal level has resulted in a shift to buying more reusable products rather than products that are discarded after the first use. For instance, I have a sense of pride in my large stack of tote bags and reusable water bottles that have travelled with me across several continents. On an even more personal note, for about eight years, I’ve been using reusable feminine hygiene products. I also do my best to be mindful of how much electricity and water I use in my home.
All of the above is not to say that living sustainably amounts exclusively to the use of fewer plastic bags and recycling. Instead, it is more reflective of how Dr. Northover shaped my outlook on living ethically and sustainably, by making the environmental something personal. The very first social issue I became passionate about is how we treat our environment because I was taught to recognize how my personal choices affect my surroundings. The power of education cannot be underestimated in how it shapes young lives and perspectives. It is through such teachers that children learn to care about issues of global concern. It is through such impassioned people that we can learn to make a difference.
Now It’s Your Turn to Make the Environment Something Personal
Education should not be limited to the classroom. It is never too late to learn something new, regardless of age or experience, or to adopt a change in lifestyle. Becoming a more sustainable person requires developing and raising awareness for yourself and within your community. What follows are some tips and tricks to begin building a personal relationship with the environment alongside a few things to consider in your daily decisions.
- Educate Yourself: One of the best ways to push for change is to read books, watch documentaries, or otherwise educate yourself about your natural environment and how it has been affected by climate change. A great recently published open-access resource on the environment of the UAE is “A Natural History of the Emirates,” edited by Professor John A. Burt, which provides context into the physical setting, ecosystems, and organisms of the UAE. If you are curious to know what is happening in your area of residence, contact your local municipality and ask about any public initiatives that are being done to protect the environment. In the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the Environment Protection and Development Authority is the key entity responsible for protecting wildlife and biodiversity, which has adopted a few environmental initiatives and strategic projects. It is further supported by the Department of Public Services and the Ras Al Khaimah Animal Welfare Center. If you live in an area with nature, take a moment to learn about and appreciate the wildlife and landforms in your area. Here in Ras Al Khaimah, we not only have the highest peak in the UAE, Jebel Jais, but also numerous wadis (valleys) that will take your breath away. Our coastal mangroves not only beautify the landscape but also store up to five times as much carbon as forests. Familiarizing yourself with existing natural resources and being a well-informed community member is absolutely key to achieving social change.
- Walk Your Talk: To achieve change, it is important to “walk your talk” and lead by example. There are some simple lifestyle modifications that you can adopt to adjust how you interact with your immediate environment and surroundings. One of the easiest choices you can make is to forgo single-use plastic bags in the UAE, and opt for the use of reusable bags, which will become a reality in the UAE following the ban on single-use plastic bags as of January 1, 2024. You can also choose to carpool with your friends or neighbors, use public transportation in your area, and buy local produce and products. You can also switch off your air conditioning unit when you are not home, order takeout without disposable cutlery (adjust your Talabat or Deliveroo settings), and support local community events. If you live in the UAE, you can also identify the nearest recycling station to you and make it part of your lifestyle to drop off your recyclables routinely. Whenever you’re at the beach, you can do a #2MinuteBeachClean to protect marine life, or a #2MinuteLitterPick in your neighborhood. If you have never done so, consider joining Earth Hour next year on March 30, 2024. Perhaps most importantly, take the time to reflect on how your decisions and lifestyle affects your surroundings and natural environment.
- Share Your Knowledge: Lastly, one of the best things you can do to achieve change is to share your knowledge with others, be it your family, friends, students, or colleagues. If you are a student, share your knowledge with your classmates, teachers, administrators, and parents. If you are a parent, teach your children about the environment and the value of reducing food waste and composting. If you are a teacher, talk to your students, school leaders, and fellow educators about how you can achieve schoolwide change.
In sum, regardless of who you are, take advantage of the particular role you are afforded in society to share your knowledge with those around you – even if it is as simple as explaining to the perplexed cashier why you are using reusable bags in the supermarket. You never know the impact you can have on the people around you by speaking up and personalizing sustainability. It is only then that we can embrace a culture that truly champions sustainability and accountability.